ORLANDO, Fla. -- In the rare instances when things looked to be going well for West Virginia Tuesday night, something devastating -- or at least derailing -- happened.
Case in point, there was a play early in the fourth quarter when senior running back Noel Devine ripped off a 28-yard run from deep in his own territory, but as he made a cutback just as the run seemed nearly finished, he fumbled the football, and West Virginia's chances, to North Carolina State.
It was that kind of night in the 23-7 loss for the Mountaineers (9-4) against North Carolina State in the Champs Sports Bowl at the Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium.
There also was a late interception thrown by West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, a Tavon Austin fumble that handed North Carolina State the ball early in the second half and a muffed punt by Jock Sanders in the waning minutes that gave the Wolfpack the ball with a short field.
"Our motto all year was that we could only beat ourselves, nobody could beat us," Devine said. "And that is really what we did, we beat ourselves."
The Wolfpack (9-4) never needed a splash play as they just stayed the course offensively, taking what the Mountaineers gave them -- five second-half turnovers.
"Life is full of bumps and bruises along the way," West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said. "Unfortunately, we had some along the way."
Unfortunately for West Virginia, North Carolina State also had junior quarterback Russell Wilson, who completed 28 for 45 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns.
As the final play was made at 9:50 p.m., it signified the grasp of the Mountaineers' program slipping from Stewart's control. In a sense, he will be a head coach in name only next season as Dana Holgorsen will have total command of the offense and Jeff Casteel will control the defense before Holgorsen takes over as head coach in 2012.
Throughout the run-up to this game, Stewart insisted his team was not distracted by the tumult surrounding the program. It sure did not look like it, as the Mountaineers weren't sharp.
And get this: Sophomore running back Shawne Alston, confronted by reporters about making Facebook posts at halftime, admitted after the game that he had made the posts from his cell phone.
So the Mountaineers played and acted as if they were distracted. Take the defense, first.
They were uncharacteristically porous in the first half, with North Carolina State carving much of its progress with Wilson's right arm. Wilson, a baseball standout who played in the Colorado Rockies' system this past summer, was crisp over the first 30 minutes, completing 17 of 24 passes for 154 yards and finding 10 targets.
North Carolina State gained 208 first-half yards. West Virginia came into the game yielding just 251.3 per game. Those 208 yards gained by the Wolfpack in the first half were more than West Virginia allowed in four games this season.
Still, the Mountaineers gave up just one touchdown, when Wilson hit Mustafa Greene with a 16-yard pass to make it 7-0. The other North Carolina State points in the first half came on a 45-yard field goal by Josh Czajkowski that barely crawled over the crossbar 26 seconds before halftime.
In between, the West Virginia defense got little help from an inconsistent offense that could not muster any continuity on the ground with a rushing attack atypically led by Smith, who ran five times for 17 yards.
The Mountaineers' offense made one spectacular play, when Stedman Bailey pulled in a 32-yard touchdown pass from Smith 2:10 before halftime to make it 10-7.
The Wolfpack lead widened to 16-7 in the third quarter as Czajkowski kicked two field goals-- one from 38 yards, one from 40.
And the bookend to a bad night came when, after Sanders muffed that punt late in the game deep in his own territory, Jarvis Williams caught a 7-yard touchdown pass. Such a sequence, a Mountaineers mistake and North Carolina State capitalizing on it, served as a microcosm of the game.
Colin Dunlap: email@example.com or 412-263-1459.